Cronenberg, as a director, has intrigued me as of late. Stylistically I almost always enjoy his films, but his choice of scripts has been hit or miss for me. The first film of his I ever saw was The Fly, but when I was very young. The first film of his I saw after becoming really interested in film was History of Violence. And I didn’t really care for it. Same with Eastern Promises.
The problem for both of these, I believe, was high expectations. Not only were they both extremely well received by critics, but both also saw Academy Award Nominations. In particular, after watching History of Violence I was aghast that William Hurt, who was in the movie for about five minutes and did nothing more than grow a goatee and overact, was nominated for best supporting actor.
I don’t want to get too far down that road though. Maybe reviews for those films some other time. I do want to briefly mention I absolutely love Videodrome, and recently revisited The Fly and found it quite enjoyable as well. So when Spider was mailed to my front door, I didn’t know what to expect. Cronenberg had, to this point, been a mixed bag.
Safe to say that trend continues.
Spider is a film about a recently released mental patient named Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), whose nickname is Spider. Apparently he is released to some sort of halfway house, where he gets his own room and a new steward, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave).
A lot of the film is spent in Spider’s past, as he tries to piece together his childhood memories. As they come to him he scrawls illegible symbols in a notebook he carries with him everywhere. His mother (Miranda Richardson) is remembered as a perfect angel, beautiful and protective. His father (Gabriel Byrne) is remembered as a drunken sod, overly stern with no real motivation to do any work, and little love or faithfulness for his wife. And, eventually, his step-mother (Alison Egan and Miranda Richardson) is seen as similar to his father; an unloving, uncaring, drunken tart.
The entire film, both past and present, is seen almost entirely through Spider’s point of view. Miranda Richardson is wonderful in the film playing, at one point or another, all three of the main female leads as seen through the fractured psyche of Spider. Gabriel Byrne also has a solid turn as Mr. Cleg, although Spider remembers him mostly as an uncaring, unsympathetic figure.
There are two “surprises” in the film. The first I didn’t see coming, but is necessary so the second may eventually be revealed. The second “surprise,” however, wasn’t a very big surprise at all. And I became a little confused here, because it feels like it is supposed to be a revelation, but I’m also not sure it’s supposed to be. If you are paying any attention to the film at all, they practically explain away the final scene before it occurs. This is fine, as not every film is not in need of a twist ending. The problem is, without a twist ending, this particular film feels a little flat.
Cronenberg is a great director, no doubt about it, and the film looks fantastic. Drab and dark to reflect the desolate world in which Spider resides. But the pacing is infuriatingly slow. A lot of this has to do with the character of Spider. There is an understanding he is a recently released mental patient, but he doesn’t really talk, he shuffles around laboriously, he wails and cries a lot, and he spends long amounts of time writing incoherently in a journal. This makes trying to find a reason to pay attention in scenes where he is on the screen alone a questionable use of time.
If the final scene in the film is not meant as a “gotcha!” then perhaps the script should be a little more involved, and the lead character a little more engrossing. If the final scene in the film is meant as such, then probably the script writers should have buried the clues a little deeper. I feel this film fell between. What promised an interesting look into the reasons behind Spider’s mental breakdown turned instead in to a tedious affair where the end question (“Was he just crazy all along?”) should have been shrouded in mystery, leaving a haunting feeling after you’ve turned off your television. Instead it is explained almost completely and absolutely, which doesn’t fit the feel of the film at all.
Written by Ryan Venson